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VoIP buying guide for small business

VoIP Service Comparisons

Let's take a brief look at three of the dozens of VoIP services available, starting with a relatively straightforward offering and ramping up the complexity (and flexibility) from there.

A Basic Service

RingCentral's overview page gives account administrators a wide view of what's happening in their network.
RingCentral Office, RingCentral's flagship business product, provides a good example of a basic VoIP service tailored to the needs of a small business. The company's reputation for reliability is top-notch, but the most notable aspect of RingCentral Office is just how simple it is to get up and running; the service plans are straightforward and require almost no new hardware.

Hardware: RingCentral handles all routing and VoIP-to-PSTN conversions in the cloud, so all you need are SIP-enabled phones. Any SIP-enabled phone or any analog phone with an adapter will work with RingCentral, but the IP phones the company sells directly are plug-and-play, while third-party phones require configuring to use the RingCentral software. RingCentral sells the Cisco-Linksys SPA-2102 analog telephone adapter for $69; phones start at $99 and go all the way up to $600 for a high-end conference phone.

Price per user: The service costs $40 per month for a single user, $30 per month per user for 2 to 20 users, $22 per month per user for 20 to 99 users, and $20 per month per user for 100 or more users. Note that “users” means each individual SIP endpoint, not employees. For example, if you have an office phone, a mobile phone, a dedicated fax machine, and a "softphone" (software client) installed on your PC, that counts as four separate users.

Standard features: All features come standard for every user, with no à la carte options available except for the option to buy additional fax lines for $5 per month each. Special "vanity" local or toll-free numbers are available, but you need to pay a $30 one-time fee and $5 per month for each separate vanity line.

  • Unlimited calling to the United States and Canada, Internet fax lines, and extensions
  • 1000 toll-free minutes per month for your company
  • Three-way calling; ten-way calling via Call Controller softphone
  • Caller ID
  • Voicemail, with a "Visual Voicemail" graphical user interface for checking messages on phones and computers
  • Virtual receptionist with dial-by-name, music-on-hold, and departmental support; optional custom prerecorded greetings start at $50
  • Advanced call forwarding, screening, and recording rules; transfer calls between phones in real time
  • Microsoft Office and Box integration
  • Mobile apps for Android, BlackBerry, and iOS smartphones

A Midrange Service

Vocalocity is a good example of a VoIP service designed for the needs of larger small businesses. Services at this level are more expensive than the types of plans that RingCentral has to offer, but Vocalocity's plans include additional features such as 911 emergency-response support, as well as even more powerful options.

Vocalocity will help you plan your phone system before you buy, so you'll know exactly what you'll need to run the company's hosted VoIP service.
Hardware: Other than SIP-enabled phones, no hardware is required. The company strongly suggests using the plug-and-play certified IP phones that it sells directly, which start at $75 each, but you'll find unofficial support for a number of other SIP-enabled phones, too.

Price per user: Vocalocity offers a trio of plans, which you can mix and match for your various extensions. An unlimited extension costs $40 per month for unlimited U.S and Canadian calling. A metered extension costs $15 per month plus $0.03 per minute, and is intended for infrequently used lines. Finally, a $15 virtual extension with unlimited minutes is available for people who need VoIP only on their mobile phones, versus a landline or softphone.

Standard features:

  • Unlimited U.S. and Canadian calling
  • 411/911 calling
  • Voicemail, available via Web interface or sent to email as an MP3 file
  • Caller ID
  • Three-way calling
  • Virtual receptionist for each extension, with support for music on hold and dial by name
  • Free mobile apps and a desktop client with plug-in-based integration for several services and programs, including Outlook, Microsoft Dynamics, SugarCRM, and LinkedIn
  • Advanced call forwarding, screening, logging, transferring, and parking options

The optional add-on features are too numerous to outline here, but you can find the entire list on Vocalocity's site. Highlights include the ability to add a paperless fax line ($15 per month), call bridging for 30-person conference calls ($15 per month plus $0.03 per minute), voicemail transcription, call recording, and call group and queue support.

A Complex Product

The Snom One Mini is a small, power-sipping IP-PBX server suitable for small offices and home offices.
If you want the highest level of control and security for your business’s telecommunications, consider a self-hosted VoIP product using an IP-PBX. Here's a look at one example, the Snom One Mini.

Hardware: The newly released Snom One Mini ($599) is a small-office/home-office IP-PBX server that draws just 60 kWh of power per year. If you want a completely in-house VoIP setup, you'll need to buy a PSTN gateway to connect VoIP calls to the public telephone network; such devices cost about $250 and up, and require an active landline. The Snom One Mini, however, was designed around the idea of using an external VoIP provider that provides "SIP trunking" services to handle the analog-to-digital signal conversion. Using one of those services would allow you to skip the PSTN gateway.

Finally, you'll need SIP phones. As with the other services discussed here, the phones that Snom sells directly—priced at $70 to $100 each—work best with this system due to their plug-and-play support. Other SIP phones or analog phones with adapters will also work, but they’ll require manual configuration with Snom's server software.

Price: Hardware pricing aside, the cost of this kind of VoIP service will vary according to the provider you choose. Skype Connect, for example, costs $7 per channel per month, plus 0.8 cent per minute on outgoing calls. The number of channels you purchase determines how many simultaneous calls the service will support. 8x8 is another popular business-oriented VoIP service provider, but you’ll need to request a quote from the company to get pricing information.

Features: The Snom One Mini supports Power over Ethernet, so you don’t need an AC outlet to set it up. It supports SIP-enabled devices, and it has no moving parts. In addition, you can configure the Linux-based IP-PBX to include VPN, DHCP, VLAN, and other services.

As for software, the Snom One Mini IP-PBX includes:

  • Support for up to 20 extensions making ten calls simultaneously
  • Mobile phone support with advanced functionality, including simultaneous ringing with your office phone, automatic transfers to mobile when you don't answer your office phone, and calling schedules that route calls to your mobile phone at specific times
  • Voicemail, optionally sent to email as an audio attachement
  • Caller ID
  • Customizable call routing and screening
  • Customizable trunking and dial plans
  • Multiple virtual receptionists
  • Music on hold, dial by name, and customizable time-based greetings
  • Email notifications for specific events
  • Personal greetings for each extension
  • Outlook integration
  • Conference calling with administrative controls, PIN codes, email notification for scheduled conference calls, multiple conference "rooms," and ad-hoc three-way calling
  • Fax machine support via ATA connections

Most small businesses will lean toward hosted VoIP services, but self-hosted VoIP arrangements offer more flexibility, security, and—if you're going the PSTN gateway route—a monthly cost of next to nothing in exchange for larger up-front costs (and a few more configuration headaches). Snom offers a one-year warranty that includes free setup support by phone or email, too.

Your Turn

As you can see, businesses have a wide array of options when it comes to switching from PSTN communications over to VoIP. Have you made the leap? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments, and help your fellow readers decide whether VoIP is right for them.

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